Unconscious bias/unexpected consequences

Back to The Wall Street Journal‘s oddly heteronormative piece on storytelling I wrote about yesterday, “Why Good Storytellers Are Happier in Life and in Love.”

I’m a big advocate of storytelling (you may have noticed), and I thought this piece might give me more ways to convince my clients to tell stories. “Not only will people listen to you more, you’ll be happier, too!”

But the Journal could have saved itself some ink and deleted “in Life”—their piece really just focuses on how men and women relate to each other romantically. And as for my finding it “oddly heteronormative,” you’re right—why should I expect anything different from the WSJ? It’s just that, silly me, I thought I was reading a piece about storytelling.

Oh dear…when I sat down at the computer this morning, I thought I was going to talk about the very sensible storytelling tips at the end of the article. But quite unconsciously this seems to be turning into a piece on unconscious bias. So what the hell, I’ll go with it.

First let’s get our definitions, um (you should pardon the expression), straight: Conscious bias is when you knowingly skew your words to favor one group or reflect one view of reality. Like when Donald Trump says…well, just about anything beyond “hello.”

Unconscious bias happens when you let your own worldview infuse what you’re writing, saying, or thinking. Like assuming that women need special accommodation when using certain products, like—no, not buzz-saws. Pens.

Or that a person of color in a hoodie must be dangerous. Talk about dangerous—that unconscious bias kills. (And yes, sadly in many cases it may not be so unconscious.)

Or that every person seeking a relationship must be looking for the opposite sex.

Unconscious bias remains a big problem in the business world. Even as sexist members of the post-WWII generation leave the workplace, the biases they inherited from their fathers (and passed on to their children) remain.

I spoke about unconscious bias last spring in a video I made for the first World Speech Day.

In the last year, I’ve been paying close attention to how I use words. And I’m always surprised by how often I use gender markers when they’re absolutely unnecessary.

Forty years ago, the women’s movement brought employed women into our collective consciousness, and eventually we learned to stop saying things like “policeman.” Today, we talk about  gender-neutral “police officers.” Stewardesses have become “flight attendants.” “Male nurses” are plain old “nurses.” This the next stage in that evolution.

As I say in the video, there’s nothing wrong with using the language we’ve always used—until we realize that doing that can hurt someone.

Does that mean The Wall Street Journal shouldn’t have published an article about how storytelling affects heterosexuals’ mating practices? Absolutely not. It’s a valid topic for study and discussion. But the author should have acknowledged the omission of others. One way would be by noting that the research she’s writing about focused solely on male-female interactions. In fact,  the title of the study—“A good story: Men’s storytelling ability affects their attractiveness and perceived status”—makes it clear that the researchers  only cared about the male half of the equation. Ah…now I see what piqued The Journal‘s interest.

There’s really only one story they care to tell. And it often leaves out more than half the population.

“Storytellers are happier”

The other day I came across an article in The Wall Street Journal headlined “Why Good Storytellers are Happier in Life and Love.” I’m always happy to see storytelling get some good press. Regular readers will have noticed it’s a favorite topic of mine. If you’ve ever gotten an email from me—you are on my mailing list, right? No? Well, go ahead and fix that right now. I’ll wait.

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As I was saying, when you get my Occasional Flashes of Brilliance, you’ll see my signature identifies me as “executive speechwriter, storyteller, coach, Mets fan.” (That last one gets harder to write as the season wears on.)

So storytelling is important to me. According to the venerable Wall Street Journal, that’s not because telling stories remains one of the most effective ways to communicate. Nope. It’s because I’ve got lady-parts:

Women rated men who were good storytellers as more attractive and desirable as potential long-term partners. Psychologists believe this is because the man is showing that he knows how to connect, to share emotions and, possibly, to be vulnerable. He also is indicating that he is interesting and articulate and can gain resources and provide support.

“Storytelling is linked to the ability to be a good provider,” because a man is explaining what he can offer, says Melanie Green, an associate professor in the department of communication at the University at Buffalo and a researcher on the study. The men didn’t care whether the women were good storytellers, the research showed.

There’s good news and bad news here (you’ve probably guessed this by now, but I added the emphasis above). The good news for me is that most of the clients I write for are men. So I now have another way to convince them how important it is for them to tell stories: Women will want to, um, “date” you. The bad news for me is, well, those aforementioned lady-parts. Actually, I don’t believe that. I think men absolutely do want women to be good storytellers—certainly in a business context. Tell a rambling story and you’re likely to be talking to the tops of people’s heads while they consult their phones. Tell a concise, well-constructed story and you’ll see their faces instead.

I did find a couple of things I could agree with in the WSJ article:

Stories are profoundly intimate, says Kari Winter, a historian and literary critic at the University at Buffalo. “It is empowering to the teller because they get recognition from the listener. And it is empowering to the listener because it helps them understand the teller.”

Okay, that I can use with my clients. Stories create intimacy, even when you’re speaking to a large group. And they empower both teller and listener. (Note the old Wall Street Journal using the singular “they” in that quotation. Way to roll with the times, Murdochs.)

Stories can also change your mood:

Research shows that the way people construct their individual stories has a large impact on their physical and mental health. People who frame their personal narratives in a positive way have more life satisfaction.

So go tell a story today. And come back tomorrow; I’ll talk about how.